Autonomy for less stress and better performance

Work stress
Work stress causes more than personal suffering. It increasingly leads to loss of productivity and it is costly (see factsheet). It affects the performance of organizations and reduces their capacity to change. For organizations that want to be able to respond effectively to developments and events in their environment, it is important to understand the possible causes of work stress and what can be done about it.

The week of work stress
In November it is the Week of Work stress. This annual event was initiated in 2014 by the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. Every year the work stress statistics are – unfortunately – impressive. What is most striking is that 1.3 million workers in the Netherlands suffer from burnout complaints. That is 14% of our nine million workers, or one in seven. What is further striking: employees experience low autonomy as the main cause of work stress. More than 43% in 2020. This percentage has been fairly constant in recent years.

Responsive Organizations
An analogous picture emerges in the analysis of responsive organizations. They have an optimal capacity for change: they respond well to changes and anticipate effectively on new needs and developments in their environment. Responsive organizations come in many shapes and sizes, but what they have in common is that autonomy is invested as low as possible in the organization. In other words, employees have a high degree of autonomy.

Autonomy, work stress and change capacity
So it seems that autonomy, work stress and change capacity have a relationship with each other, as shown in the following graph:

Autonomy levels affect both the wellbeing of employees as well as the organizational capacity to change

A higher degree of autonomy is good for the well-being of employees and for the change capacity of organizations. Time to take a closer look at autonomy…

Autonomy is a basic need
People experience autonomy when they can determine the way they do their work. The degree to which autonomy is possible depends on the type of work. But even if a task is clearly defined, there are still plenty of opportunities to give employees autonomy. For example, by letting them make certain decisions themselves, giving them room for their own (improvement) initiatives and being open about the developments of the entire organization. In all kinds of studies, ‘autonomy’ emerges as one of the basic needs of employees.

Netflix: Freedom, Responsibility and Trust
A good example in which autonomy leads to more well-being of employees and contributes to the ability to change is given by Netflix. The company gives the ultimate interpretation to the concept of autonomy: to optimize the innovative capacity of the fast-growing company, there is a culture of ‘no rules’. The management recognized that (rapid) growth of organizations often comes at the expense of the freedom of individuals: in order to cope with the increasing complexity, more and more processes and procedures are being introduced in larger organizations. But it also comes at the expense of employees. Especially those who make significant contributions to success and are less comfortable with the curtailment of their freedoms in the workplace.

Netflix wanted to turn this around: can we continue to grow fast and continuously attract sufficient talent, without increasing complexity? Therefore, the company introduced a values-driven culture without rules. Full freedom for the employees, in the confidence that they take their responsibility and make decisions in the interest of the organization. This means, for example, that people do not have to ask for approval on travel or expenses. There is also no maximum number of vacation days, which are not recorded anyway.

Netflix’s continuous growth and creative achievements show that a high degree of autonomy contributes to a high intrinsic motivation of employees and to the innovative capacity of a company.

Win win
In the history of management, employers and employees have always been pitted against each other. This is partly due to deep-seated prejudices and assumptions that lie at the root of traditional management thinking. In it, workers were seen primarily as a factor of production, an extension of machines, rather than people with individual needs.
In the present time there is no more room for this schism. Because statistics – worldwide – make it clear time and again that the social, organizational and personal sacrifices no longer outweigh the benefits of employees with little autonomy.

It is time for entrepreneurs, directors and managers to work towards maximum autonomy among employees. That benefits all stakeholders. It is therefore a win-win situation: employers, managers and employees have an interest in the highest possible level of autonomy. The Netflix case is one of many, in which it is consistently proven that giving trust, responsibility and autonomy leads to more agility, resilience and innovation capacity. As a bonus, it benefits the employer brand. And that is worth a lot in this time of talent scarcity!

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